It’s 9:45 on a rainy Sunday morning. It’s not particularly dark, and most of the time it’s one of those light rains that tempt you to leave without your umbrella. But then there’s a spate of harder rain, not torrential, but hard and steady enough that you’re glad you didn’t give in to that impulse to leave the umbrella at home.
Normally, by this time I’d be at church already, but this Sunday I’ve agreed to go to First Congregational Church of Woodstock as a representative for the Fold. Up until last night, I thought I would just be meeting people during the coffee hour after church. Last night I learned the church had allotted me 4 minutes ... not 5, not 3, but 4 ... to speak to the congregation during the service. And I was to meet with Pastor Norm Koop (son of C. Everett“Chick” Koop, Surgeon General of the United States during several presidencies) before the 10:30 worship service started, so he could impress upon me his very firm desire that I not go over my allotted time.
You know, it’s really hard to say anything meaningful in 4 minutes. It doesn’t give you much time for an intro, any little thing you might like to say to warm up the crowd. Heck, it doesn’t give you much time for breathing between sentences!
So I knew I would need to be concise. I had given some thought to the most important points I would want to make, and how I would want to make them. I had looked up a scripture to include if there was time. And I put it all down in bullet points on a single sheet of paper in large type, even though there was so little time to say anything that I probably could have remembered it without looking. You never know when you're going to get the jitters and go completely blank.
So it’s 9:45 on a Sunday morning, and I’m in my car heading toward Woodstock. Woodstock is in Vermont, about 35 minutes away. Part of the trip is 4-lane highway, part on a 2-lane winding state route. I have plenty of time to rehearse and get my timing down. When I hit a nice empty stretch, I note the time on my car’s clock and start my spiel.
It runs 6 minutes.
Scrap the scripture and start over.
It’s a tad over five minutes.
I’m pretty sure they mean for me to take 5 minutes. That’s why they told me 4. I mean, a worship service isn’t exactly on military time, right? Five minutes is good.
I do one more practice run and am comfortable with the spiel. By now, I’m in Woodstock and feelin’ ready to bark with the big dogs.
Parking in Woodstock is never easy, but Sunday mornings aren’t too bad. I park a little over a block away. Now I have to get out of the car without getting my favorite lime green silk jacket wet. I reach into the back of the car to retrieve my big yellow umbrella. I have my bible, purse, and a folder containing my notes and a signup sheet.
It’s been a while since I’ve used this umbrella. I push & squeeze various places before I find the button that opens it. I want to get it partially open before opening the door. I touch the button, and there’s a loud WHACK!
I cannot believe my eyes. There’s a giant starry crack in my windshield. From an UMBRELLA??
Deep breath. Shake head in amazement. Close eyes. Yep, it’s still there.
Deep breath. OK! Not much I can do about it now. Let’s get this show on the road.
I start to get out of the car and realize I haven’t unbuckled the seat belt yet. Sigh. Unbuckle. Get out. Open the umbrella ... what?? It’s broken, too!? You know, this is starting to get a little funny. When I try to step out of the car and find my purse strap is tangled up with the seat belt, I have to start laughing. I have the broken umbrella in one hand. I have to hold it open at the base of the spines, so my hand is dead center over my head. My other hand has the bible and the folder in it. My purse is over my shoulder, so I darn near get pulled back into the car when the seat belt yanks on the purse. Two hands full, and a tangled up purse! Yep, the guffaws are really starting now (mine, I mean. Fortunately I didn’t have an audience for this little act!) I put the bible and folder on the front seat, untangle the purse, put its strap over an arm and my neck so it’s securely tucked under the arm. Pick up the bible & folder, close the car door, lock it, and put the keys in my purse. Now, that was almost coherent. You’d think I was competent or something.
Still shaking my head and smiling to myself, I head up the sidewalk with my hand and umbrella held high over my head. I look down and notice my shoelace is untied. Uh-oh. No way to tie it now, so I walk verrrry carefully and look forward to putting all this stuff down when I get inside that nice dry church.
At last! I go up the exterior stairs into the side door of the church. There are two prim, white-haired ladies standing there, hands folded, greeting folks as we enter. I turn to say hello and, forgetting the shoelace, step right on it and lurch toward the wall. Now I’m really laughing. My purse has flipped around and is hanging around my neck like a necklace. My broken umbrella is dripping on the carpet, and I’ve nearly landed in the lap of one of the ladies ... Not that she was sitting down, mind you!
I turn and look at them, smiling ruefully. “I’m not having a very good morning so far!” I say emphatically. I’m trying not to break into giggles, or, worse, tears.
“No?” one of the ladies says, sounding concerned.
“No! I just broke my windshield with my umbrella, which broke the umbrella, too, and now my shoelaces are both untied! Do you think somebody doesn’t want me here?”
“Of course not!” She’s making the best of a dodgy situation.
“Oh, well, I’ve been wanting a new windshield anyway,” I declare, and actually it’s true. After 5 years a windshield gets so pitted it makes a difference in visibility, especially at night.
“And it probably needed washing, anyway,” she comforts me.
“Absolutely. You’re so right.” By now I’ve dropped all my stuff, tied my shoes, picked all my stuff back up, and am ready to move on. “I’m here to speak for the Fold in the worship service, and I think Norm wanted to speak with me beforehand. Do you know where he is?”
She gives me directions. I head off to look for him. I’m still a bit rattled by it all.
En route to finding Norm, I see several friends and acquaintances to say hello to, Judy and Andrew and Eric. So I get to repeat my humorous tale (at least it’s funny to me!) of the morning’s events several times before I find him. He says, “Did they tell you about the time?”
“Yes sir! I rehearsed it on the way over here. It was six minutes. I cut it down some.”
“You look like the kind of person who can speak and keep things right on time,” he says. “Just know that I have a hook. And I’ll use it.”
“Great! You’ve given me my opening line.”
I head into the sanctuary and look through the bulletin that was handed to me on my way in. I see an insert about the Fold. I realize it says everything I was going to say, and more. I am completely superfluous.
Katie and Meredith, a discipler and resident of the Fold respectively, are sitting with me in the pew. I ask them to pray for my jangled nerves as I go get someone to help us set up the Fold's display board in the fellowship room for the coffee time after church.
The service starts. I’m due to go up front after some songs and a few other items. My mind is racing. What do I do?
Just this past week, my Wednesday night women’s fellowship group was reading about Bill Hybels’ trip to India, where he was asked on less than one day’s notice to give the main sermon before a gathering of 20,000 people, most of whom don’t believe in God and Jesus. No one in the audience spoke English. He wasn’t familiar enough with the culture to say anything that he could be sure would ring true with them. He was in a mighty big lather, wanting to sink right through the floor of the stage and get the heck out of town. You know, just about what any one of us would feel under the circumstances.
His awareness that he wasn’t trusting God led him to stop worrying about himself and to pray fervently that the God of the universe would take control of him, his words, his interpreter, and his listeners, and as a result, hundreds of Indians put their faith in Christ that night. It was a mighty moving of the Holy Spirit in that crowd, and it happened because Hybels was willing to put aside his fears and trust God to do the work. (See Too Busy Not To Pray)
Was it coincidence we “happened” to read that chapter this week? Not likely. I prayed something similar to Bill Hybels' prayer. And then when it was my time to speak, I threw away my notes and took a deep breath.
I’d already done a lot of deep breathing that day.
“Norm tells me I have only 4 minutes. He says he has a hook, and ..., “ I drop my voice and lean toward the mike a little, “... he’s willing to use it.” Smiles and chuckles. This congregation if very fond of their colorful pastor.
“Not only that, but I just looked in your bulletin, and the yellow insert,” waving it for them to see, “has everything on it that I was going to tell you. So, I’m putting my notes aside and am just going to speak to you from the heart about the Fold. So Norm,” turning around to where he’s sitting right behind me, “would you clear your throat about 30 seconds before you reach for the hook?” Now there’s quite a bit of laughter. I’ve gotten their attention.
I spend the next 3 or 4 minutes thanking them repeatedly and sincerely for their support of the Fold, and shared why Todd and I have chosen to support it with our own time and money. I think I kept it pretty short. Norm never cleared his throat. A few people afterward said I did “great” ... but people are kind. I think it was OK. My main hope is that I was able to interest more people in the Fold’s mission to help families. One really good outcome was that quite a few guys signed up to help out on summer work teams this year.
So, did God guide my words, you ask? I guess that's for you to decide. If He wasn't pulling the strings directly (a concept that may sound Machiavellian but that gives me huge comfort, to know that when I willingly give Him control, He will take it), He certainly arranged my life so that I would be ready and able to speak at a time when I was needed.
Who knows? Maybe sometime they’ll ask me back when there’s more time so I can tell them some stories. Starting with the story about my windshield.